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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Senate approves new state budget; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

It’s not a deal, but it’s a start.

The Virginia Senate approved a state budget Tuesday, voting 24-8 to advance a package that doesn’t include tax increases.

The vote clears the way for action on the two-year spending plan in the House of Delegates on Thursday.

The Senate’s new offering contains a $339 million, one-time infusion of cash for transportation, but only on the condition that a plan with “adequate, sustainable, and reliable revenues” is passed by Nov. 1.

If not, the money goes to local school construction and income tax relief.

Senators had pressed for $1 billion or more each year for transportation, but relented after the House wouldn’t budge.

Sen. John H. Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, cast the new legislation not as a retreat, but as a minor modification of what the Senate has proposed all along.

“This is virtually the same bill that has passed this chamber on a number of occasions, subject to a few modifications, but not substantive, in the view of most of the members of the Senate, I believe,” he said on the floor.

No one should think the upper house is abandoning its views on transportation.

“This is not a change, this is not a difference,” he said. “We’re the same Senate, with the same goals, with the same agenda for transportation.”

The needs remain urgent, according to the chairman. Aggravation with the current transportation situation isn’t unique to Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.

“The Route 81 corridor to be sure, Southwest Virginia and rural Virginia likewise,” Chichester said. In those places, the issue is “not necessarily new roads, new corridors, but widening of existing roads, making them safer for school buses and trucks … to pass.”

There’s still not a great amount of trust in some quarters that the House will make good.

A move earlier this month to table the four regional Senate transportation bills until September, including one by Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, shows that the House has no interest in moving forward, said Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke.

“We’re negotiating with a body that refuses to negotiate,” he said.
Senators should have used the bill to force an up-or-down vote on their plan in the House, he said.

“I’m sorry we’re doing it this way. I don’t condemn anyone for this tactic,” he said. “But I think it’s a mistake.”

But the vote is a bright spot on what was becoming an ever-darker legislative horizon, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said after the vote.

It was also politically smart for the oft-divided Republican Party, he added.

Pressing on toward a government shutdown would have been a major political blow to the GOP, and voters wouldn’t forget which party was at the wheel when it happened, Obenshain said.

Speaker of the House Bill Howell said after the session that the House wants to keep the current special session going even after a budget deal to start transportation talks.

There are still differences with the Senate over the spending plan, but removing tax hikes, which delegates say were unconstitutionally included in the budget, is a major step forward.

“Today’s events should encourage all those who care about governing in a responsible matter,” Howell said in an e-mail to reporters.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine took a less charitable view of the situation, chiding the House for not accepting previous Senate proposals.

“The time for House leadership to come to the negotiating table is long overdue,” he says in a statement. “We are rapidly approaching the end of the fiscal year, and the need for a solution to address the shortfall in statewide transportation funding becomes more urgent every day.”

But the Democrats in Capitol Square were pushing toward a government shutdown, not a transportation package, Obenshain said.

In the end, no one wanted that.

“If all of the Democrats would have voted against it, and held out for a transportation package, we could not have passed it,” he said.